Owen St Victor: The Itinerarium Tyndale


In summer we leave the smoky town on its western side and cross the bridge that spans the old narrow river Zenne and its modern companion, the wide canal leading to Brussels. Here we climb the leafy winding paths through the hardwoods and conifers in the 'Three Fountains Domain.' At the summit of the hill we rest upon a bench and look down on the city of Vilvoorde where William Tyndale was executed for translating the Bible at the end of another summer more than four and a half centuries ago.

It is early evening. Behind us, two miles further to the west, the bells of the former Norbertine abbey church at Grimbergen begin to peal. It is one of those carillon concerts for which Belgium is justly famous as one finds particularly in Flemish cities such as Antwerp and nearby Mechelen (Malines). The strong peals ring out over the countryside. We recall that Thomas Hardy, a poet from Tyndale's own West Country, wrote of the Belgians in October 1914:

I dreamt that people from the Land of Chimes 
Arrived one autumn morning with their bells, 
To hoist them in the towers and citadels
Of my own country —
That the musical rhymes rung by them,
Into space at meted times,
Amid the market's daily stir and stress,
And the night's empty star-lit silentness,
Might solace souls of this and kindred climes.

One may suppose from the principal Vilvoorde church which lay just to the north of the Vilvoorde Castle prison and which is named — ironically in relation to the condemned Bible translator — 'Our Lady of Good Hope', that a dawn peal tolled for Tyndale; a mournful summons to the townspeople to witness the public execution of a 'heretic'.

From our high vantage point we can clearly see the church. It has been in a bad state for a long time with pieces of masonry from the arches and ornaments falling into the street; but there is hope for 'Our Lady' — the church is being restored. To the left of it we see the modern Van Helmont Hospital, named after the town's prison physician and scientist of European renown, Jean Baptiste Van Helmont. He attended prisoners in the seventeenth century, and he too came under suspicion of heresy for the treatise in which he wrote up his chemical experiments that led to his discovery of the nature of gases. He also was a student of Hebrew, as was his son Franz, whose Cabbalah Denudata (1677) shows the growing influence of Rabbinic Humanism in Renaissance and Reformation Europe.

To the right of 'Our Lady of Good Hope' the Zenne river has made a very sharp rightangled bend. Below this bend on the west side of the river lies the barracks, and opposite on the eastern side is Kasteelstraat. Exactly here there once rose the seven sinister towers of Vilvoorde Castle, between the present Herlaer and Trawool streets. Kasteelstraat would have run right through the middle of the prison property.

Tyndale was kept in the 'Prisoners' Tower'. This was the middle tower on the left side of the castle as one looked towards Brussels. If one stands at the east end of Kasteelstraat, at the junction of the southbound Brussels road called Schaarbeeklei, one will be precisely at the place where Tyndale was held captive some five-hundred days before his death.

Belgian sources indicate that he was executed in the morning. The prison had a chapel and sacristy and one wonders to what extent Tyndale, as a heretic, was offered the consolations of religion before he was led out to his death. The Belgian writers speak of his ashes having been thrown into the River Zenne later in the day. Thus the clues that the execution site was near to the prison and the river, and close enough to Our Lady of Good Hope church for prison and parish priests and town laity to attend, suggest a location for Tyndale's martyrdom, which probably lay just to the east of the castle, across the Schaarbeek road. This site is presently in a large park which has a small central lake.

In a later article I will say something about the Vilvoorde Monument to Tyndale, the Tyndale Museum, and the recent Tyndale celebration in the town.

It is a very small consolation for a modern, English-Bible lover who regrets deeply not only William Tyndale's death but the harsh circumstances of his cold and damp winter confinement, to know that his cell faced east. Thus the rays of the morning sun would light his narrow chamber. Later in the morning he would dispute with the visiting inquisitors or write, but first he would pray. His own great words from his own version of Genesis must have come to his lips: Let there be light... We know now that shortly after his death there was light, and that his magnificent translations of Old and New Testaments began to reach people all over the English-speaking world.


Our next day of the Itinerary takes us six miles further south from Vilvoorde's castle. A decade and half before Tyndale's involuntary stay there a guest came to our new destination, Desiderius Erasmus, and his hosts were a chapter at Anderlecht of his own order, the Regular Austin Friars. This little community is described as having been an intellectual centre with a European-wide fame.

Erasmus was here in 1517 and for the most part of 1521. One may note that in the March of 1516 the great Dutch Humanist and Reformer had published his new and authoritative Greek text of the New Testament. The second edition came out in 1519. Among the manuscripts he used were two from the Augustinian Priory near Turnhout, two from the Monastery of Mount St Agnes near Zwolle, and in 1520 and 1521 he used two others in Brussels and one in Liège, from which we can see something of his dependence on Low Countries sources. From 1517 to 1520 he was living in Louvain, but was back in Anderlecht in 1521.

In his Introduction to Tyndale's New Testament (1989), David Daniell writes 'In Germany, he translated from the second and third editions of Erasmus's Greek Testament, of 1519 and 1522.' The translator's English New Testament came out in 1534. In 1535 William Tyndale was executed for both his work and his beliefs. Finally, in 1559, the notorious Roman Catholic 'Index' condemned all the writings of Erasmus.

The Augustinian Canons had built guest houses. In Anderlecht one of these, The Swan' at 31 Kappittelstraat, is the place where Erasmus stayed. Since 1932 it has been the Erasmus House' — a museum and library dedicated to his memory. Some thirty years ago the present writer became a member of 'The Friends of Erasmus House', so impressed was he with the collection of Erasmus' Works (many of them original editions) and memorabilia. Of particular interest to English visitors are the following items:

Kamer van Rhetorijke
5 Portrait of Adrian VI by Titian
38 Medallion of Adrian VI

48 Portrait of Henry VIII by Holbein
85 First edition of Erasmus' Praise of Folly (1511)
100 First edition of the Adagia

Studievertrek van Erasmus
102 Page of the great Nuremberg Bible of 1483
104 Portrait-drawing of Henry VIII
178 Silver medallion of Martin Luther
186 Medallion of John Calvin

214 Portrait of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, by Holbein (1535) Vorzaal
227 Portrait of John More, father of Thomas More, by Holbein
229 Portrait of John More, son of Thomas More, by Holbein
234 Portrait of Jane Seymour, Queen of England, by Holbein

Witte Zaal
255 Erasmus in Thomas More's drawing of Henry VII's children at Greenwich (1499)
299 Erasmus' Commentaries on Luke, John and Paul (1520-3)

Vorzaal en trap
444 Thomas More and his daughter
448 A group of Humanists
453 Thomas More's Family by Holbein
478 Mary Stuart, Queen of France

Contains works of Erasmus, and works about him and his times.

Among other memorabilia there is Erasmus' famous ring. And not the least important treasure is a most knowledgeable curator.


English and other scholars from further afield may wish to become better acquainted with Belgium before their study-visit. One can begin, perhaps, by noting what is said by Herbert H Rowen in The Low Countries in Early Modern Times (1972). He observes that 'Out of the congeries of provinces and lands that lay athwart the lower reaches of the three great rivers — Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt — that run into the North Sea through Europe's greatest delta, the Burgundian Dukes in the late Middle Ages had created a major power; what modern historians call 'the Burgundian State'.

These same Low Countries of Reformation times, which became the Spanish Netherlands and later the independent Netherlands, in fact consisted mainly of two important elements: the Duchy of Brabant in the east and Flanders in the west. This was the Flanders that incorporated Ypres as well as Dunkirk (now in France), two placenames which, in the tragic and awesome history of twentieth century war have come to mean so much to England and its allies in terms of human suffering.

Flanders today, however, means the Flemish-speaking, northern part of Belgium. Many of its cities have had strong English connections, particularly in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Best known are Brugge (Bruges); Gent (Ghent in English, Gand in obsolete French); and, of course, Antwerp — a city which recently celebrated being a Cultural Capital of Europe. Also important for the Reformation and Humanist scholar is Mechelen (Malines), due principally to Margaret of York, to Thomas More's visits here to Jerome Busleyden, the presence of the Brothers of the Common Life and other reasons. In addition, one cannot overlook the world-famed University of Leuven and the town printers and booksellers. Neither should the scholar miss old, Flemish Brussels; its Albert I National Library has important holdings, some unique; exhaustive catalogues and publications; and a superbly trained staff whose scholarship is to be envied.

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